by Kevin Kelleher, contributor
FORTUNE -- When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walked out on stage at the company's annual f8 conference this month and started talking about identities, he got a good laugh from the crowd. "I want to start by focusing on key issues," he said at a stiff, self-conscious pace. "The first is the importance of authentic identity."
It was amusing because the Zuckerberg in this hoodie was none other than Andy Samberg, whose Zuck doppelgänger on SNL is a sleazier, cheesier and flakier version of the real thing. But it also drew laughter because Samberg -- and Facebook -- were poking fun at Google.
A few months ago, Google (GOOG) finally delivered its answer to Facebook, Google+, only to get mired in a controversy over online identities. Google began deleting profiles it felt weren't authentic: names spelled with too-cute punctuations, pseudonyms, even nicknames. As users protested, the definition of just what was and what wasn't acceptable seemed to grow even murkier. The bottom line seemed to be that Google only wanted authentic identities on its social service.
Facebook has its own issues with identity (and who that identity is shared with), but Google's rejection of pseudonyms ran counter to the very thing that made Facebook a success in the first place: creating a service and then letting users decide how they'll use it. Google was trying to do the opposite -- telling its users how they were supposed to use the service. Of course, Google has reasons for these demands -- how to you serve ads to a fabricated persona? -- but it overlooked the reality that, on the web, you build a site through a two-way conversation with your audience.
On the face of it, what Google wants isn't unreasonable: People behaving online as they do in the real world. In the real world, you may have what psychologists call multiple identities -- being a parent, but also a son or daughter, a worker, a spouse, a friend -- but all of these roles fit snugly under the same umbrella. And with Google+'s ability to easily arrange all of your friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances into customizable "circles," what need could there possibly be for someone to want a second, fake account?
This too is a reasonable enough question, but it overlooks another peculiar thing about the web: it's changing the way we present ourselves and see ourselves. It's the place where, famously, nobody knows you're a dog. Or, conversely, where you can be a furry. Online, identity has the potential to become complex, unstable and creative. It even makes it possible for people to have many more identities than they do in real life -- invented, pseudonymous or otherwise.
There are plenty of examples of people going online and pretending to be someone they're not in real life. The instances with the most notoriety involve some kind of fraudulent intent: Nigerian scammers posing as honest people in an hour of need, spammers with Twitter accounts, trolls empowered by anonymity.
There's no question that duplicity can be damaging on the web, but much more common -- if much less discussed -- are the instances of people who aren't acting fraudulently or even disingenuously. Many people chiding Google's anti-pseudonym policy point to activists who could only speak truth to power in anonymity.
But many pseudonymic and alternative identities have been taken up by people who aren't necessarily fighting censorship, but simply expressing themselves in new ways. There are bloggers like Tyler Durden and Fake Steve Jobs who discovered their voices behind a veil. Second Life, founded nearly eight years to the day before Google+ launched, may have fizzled but it let many people do trial and error with online alter-egos. MMPORGS have thrived where Second Life failed, becoming a multi-billion-dollar business. World of Warcraft alone has more than 12 million active players.
Google seems to ignore ample evidence that innocuous but nevertheless alternative identities are often a good thing. There's the evidence from history. From the Federalist Papers to Mary Anne Evans to Story of O, anonymity and pseudonymity have allowed culture to flourish.
Then there are studies by psychologists that suggest that having too few identities can lead to depression and neurosis, or that multiple identities that don't conflict with each other can add to psychological well being. Again, the technical term "identity" is restricted to narrow social roles in psychological literature, but the web is in all likelihood changing this concept.
In other words, who is Google to say that the web shouldn't be a platform for George Eliot's successors to find themselves? Or that a retired widower shouldn't stave off loneliness by creating a new identity online?
To be fair, Google has offered (among other contradictory explanations) the defense that Google+ is not fully baked. And once it is, it will accommodate the kinds of subtleties that its critics are currently demanding. Here's Google VP of products Bradley Horowitz in a Wired interview:
"Google believes in three modes of usage—anonymous, pseudonymous, and identified, and we have a spectrum of products that use all three... Gmail and Blogger are pseudonymous – you can go be firstname.lastname@example.org. But with products like Google Checkout, you're doing a financial transaction and you have to use your real name. For now, Google+ falls into that last category."
That echoes something Horowitz wrote on his Google+ page when the controversy was in full flame: "Please don't misconstrue the product as it exists today (< 4 weeks since entering Field Trial) as the 'end state.'" And also an interview where another Googler, Joseph Smarr, made a strong case for Google just wanting to get its software to match the deeper nuances of social interaction: "We don't want to do it wrong so we'd rather wait until we get it right."
In other words, Google may just be keeping Plus on the "identified" level until it can make pseudonymous profiles work seamlessly. Until then, the Circles feature in Google+ remains a welcome addition. It allows users to set up groups of online friends that reflect our multiple roles in our offline lives -- at work, at school and at home. For many people, that will be enough. In fact, for many people, the idea of creating a synthetic self on the web will never be appealing.
But without the freedom to experiment with pseudonymous profiles, many others will be put off by Google+ -- which could be a problem as Google sees Plus as the social glue holding all its other services together. It's not surprising that the complaints over Google+ have come from people who are deeply involved in the web -- they have a stronger instinct for how the web is evolving.
And how it's changing us in turn. Just as the Internet has changed the way we interact and communicate, it has the potential to change how we see and present ourselves. We still don't know yet how exactly how our online selves will emerge as different from our everyday selves. But we'll only find out through trial and error. Only on Google, for now at least, there will be no experimentation allowed.
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